In a press conference yesterday afternoon, Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman was asked if being called a "thug" bothered him. "The only reason it bothers me," he said, "is because it seems like it's the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays."
Sherman had been out-and-out called nigger, of course, on the internet and elsewhere. But "thug" was different. "Thug" was okay. "It's like everyone else said the N-word, and then they say 'thug' and they're like 'oh, that's fine,'" he told the assembled reporters.
"Thug" in its modern usage, as Sherman was saying, has come to mean a black person—generally a black man—who has committed any perceived infraction a white person can think of. "Thug" might have once described people actually deserving of the term—Wall Street swindlers or cops who harass and kill citizens with impunity. But now it's mostly deployed to attack the character of black Americans, many of whom have done nothing wrong but be offensive to a white person's sensibilities.
"Talking loudly," as Sherman had put it. "[T]alking like I'm not supposed to."
The press conference had been called because four days ago, after an NFC championship game in which one player had been carted off the field with a destroyed knee while fans threw food at his head, Sherman had the nerve to yell passionately in an interview.
Speaking with Fox Sports' Erin Andrews immediately following the game, Sherman, who is famously outspoken, described his last-minute interaction with 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, the intended recipient for a pass Sherman had blocked:
"I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that is the result you are going to get. Don't you ever talk about me. [...] Crabtree. Don't you open your mouth about the best, or I'm going to shut it for you really quick."
NFL fans immediately reacted the way they now tend to when the men they spend countless Sundays idolizing end up behaving in manner that doesn't jibe with their arbitrary senses of decorum. Some were plain: For saying some not nice stuff about a rival in the heat of the moment, Richard Sherman was a nigger. But the most popular criticism on television and in the media by far held that Sherman was "a thug."
This is a familiar refrain in American sports. Earlier this month, after winning the BCS championship match, easily the biggest game of his football career to date, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston gave an excited interview to ESPN. Though Winston's answers were actually quite easy to follow, they were tinged with his Alabama drawl and delivered with the kind of flustered cadence one might expect from a guy who only moments ago fulfilled a boyhood dream.
When white television stars say silly things when put on the spot, people perceive it to be cute and funny. Guys like Jameis Winston get less leeway. Dee Dee McCarron, mother of University of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, tweeted "Am I listening to English?" during Winston's interview. Others joined in the bashing:
— Sam Webby (@wamsebby) January 20, 2014
Jameis Winston is so thug in this interview ��
— Christopher Lords (@ChrisLords2) January 7, 2014
Jameis Winston is a thug; Richard Sherman is a thug; Serena Williams is a "ghetto thug" for arguing with an umpire—John McEnroe was presumably less ghetto and thuggish when he regularly berated refs throughout his career; LeBron James is a thug just because this sports fan says so, because "I just don't like LeBron James or the way the NBA forces himself upon us, the fans and the media."
There are other ways people try and deride black athletes—and teachers and lawyers and presidents and students buying skittles—and their various behaviors, of course, including adjectives like "tacky" and appeals to class. Many said Richard Sherman is "classless," for instance, because he raised his voice and showed too much pride and too little sportsmanship.
(Here let's pause to try and consider how much things like sportsmanship and decorum actually matter to diehard fans of a game in which men damage their brains and bodies for the public's entertainment, in which "fans" throw food at badly injured players' heads and cheer when players suffer, and in a league that has repeatedly and methodically attempted to pretend that some of its employees aren't ruining themselves permanently in the name of sport.)
In 2011 the New York Post's Phil Mushnick called Serena Williams classless for yelling at a chair umpire during the US Open. "This one wasn't as bad as 2009, when, sounding like a street thug, she cursed out and threatened a lineswoman," Mushnick continued.
A few years earlier, under the headline "Williams Could Use an Etiquette Lesson," New York Times writer Selena Roberts chastised Williams for being "bitter and belligerent and discourteous." In 2012, that same paper would write off Jimmy Connor's infamously caustic court demeanor as "bad-boy antics."
In 2010, after Tiger Woods had been gone from golf for months while attempting to manage a sex scandal, Business Insider's Henry Blodget railed on Woods for his "sullen, arrogant, and classless tone" in a press conference following a loss at the Masters Tournament. "Tiger may have learned that banging porn stars every chance he gets isn't a profitable business or marriage decision, and he may have learned to control that impulse (time will tell)," wrote Blodget. "But Tiger certainly hasn't gained a new sense of humility or grace or appreciation for the amazing accomplishments of his fellow men."
The article closed: "That's just the way he is: The best golfer in history. And an asshole."
What does America want from its black athletes? It certainly wants them to play sports. In 2010, blacks, who compose about 14 percent of the United States, made up 45.8 percent [PDF] of NCAA Division I football programs and 60.9 percent of Division I basketball programs. (Meanwhile, of the 120 colleges composing the Football Bowl Subdivision, just five had black presidents at their helms.) In professional basketball and football, the percentage of black players jumps even higher: In 2012 78 percent [PDF] of the NBA was black, as was 67 percent [PDF] of the NFL. (Of the 64 NBA and NFL franchises, only one has black majority owners.)
America loves its black athletes. It loves to watch them jump high and run fast. It loves to watch them punch each other in rings and tackle each other on fields, occasionally so violently that they tear each other's ligaments and break each other's bones and concuss each other. America loves to do all of this so much that it's willing to devote innumerable hours and billions of dollars to the practice. But all that love can be abusive and fleeting, and woe be unto the black athletes who step out of line in America.
Sports fans throw things at white players, too. They boo them and question their "classiness." Sometimes a cranky armchair quarterback is nothing but a cranky armchair quarterback. But too often in America it seems the industry of sports descends into little more than a way for fans and pundits alike to give place to dusty old stereotypes they might otherwise have to avoid in polite company and on nationally broadcast TV shows.
It's thus become acceptable for sports pundits, who rely on player trash talk and bad blood to build the empire narratives fans love, to nonetheless trot out the word "thug" to describe an abrasive black athlete; it's become common for fans to say the black players they don't like are stupid niggers. People will cheer if a black linebacker plows full speed into a black running back, knocking loose the ball and perhaps a joint or two. But people will call that same linebacker a detestable criminal if he says something mean about the running back after the game.
Meanwhile, white athletes like Brian Wilson get to accost and yell at franchise CEOs without anyone daring to label them a thug, because that kind of thing, as we know, is just "bad-boy antics." Richard Sherman raised his voice in an interview to theatrically insult another player, and viewers called him a brute who deserved to die. What would they have said if he had gotten in a white owner's face and demanded satisfaction? How many murder fantasies would that trespass have launched?
Do everything you can with your body, America tells Richard Sherman. But your mouth needs to stay shut. Thankfully, Sherman is still talking. His honest description of his reaction to the taunts of "thug" in yesterday's press conference were everything that someone seeking a role model in professional sports could ask for:
"It kind of takes me aback. It's kind of disappointing. Because they know. What's the definition of a thug, really? [...] Maybe I'm talking loudly; maybe I'm talking like I'm not supposed to, but—there was a hockey game where they didn't even play hockey, they just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that, and said, 'Oh man, I'm the thug? What's going on here?'"
Earlier this week, in an op-ed published in Sports Illustrated, Sherman attempted once more to explain his angry outburst. "It was loud," he wrote, "it was in the moment, and it was just a small part of the person I am." But one of the most difficult things about being a black person in America is that, in many people's eyes, a momentary lapse in concentration, an instant of acting outside the boundaries of what's acceptable, is never just a small part of who you are. It defines you, it envelopes you, it's the real you shining through after years of deceiving people into thinking that you were smart, decent, kind, hardworking—the opposite of all those other hoodlums. Richard Sherman is fast, but nothing in sports is faster than how quickly a successful and talented black person in America can be reduced to nothing but a nigger thug.